The Washington Post

How Politico reacted to its plagiarism outbreak

Over the next couple of weeks, the Erik Wemple Blog will be looking back at the stories we’ve covered over our first half-year in existence. We’re calling it the Look-Back Fortnight.

Politico handled the Kendra Marr situation the way it handles a hot news story: instantly and decisively. When top editors discovered instances of what they called “improper borrowing” in some of Marr’s stories, they published an editors’ note on a Thursday night — Oct. 13 — and declined to comment on the situation the following day. Marr resigned. By the next Monday, the story had expired.

Jitters bounced up and down Politico’s corridors, however. Staffers wondered just what Marr had done to trigger such treatment. It was time for some staff meetings. Once behind closed doors, staffers pressed their supervisors on all manner of gripes and concerns. They talked about the work culture. They talked about aggregation. They talked about Marr.

Attendees were treated to something that Politico consumers didn’t get. A projector at the meetings beamed a side-by-side comparison of Marr’s work and the stories from which she allegedly pulled material. According to several sources, the presentation had a calming effect on the staff.

Politico leadership pivoted from Marr to an in-house training program. Over the past month or two, newsroom veterans have held sessions on a range of journalistic subject areas, including the following (as articulated in a Politico e-mail):

● Building sources: How to develop source relationships — pick up the phone and get out of the office

● Using public records: Boosting original reporting — where to look for records and how to understand them

● Mike Allen’s survival guide: Reporting tips from one who knows (wonder who led that one?)

● How to write a POLITICO lede: How to land in the coveted lede spot — a sharp idea, an even sharper top and loads of reporting to back it up

● Attribution in the Internet age: a look at what synthesis/rewriting is acceptable and unacceptable; when attribution is needed and when it isn’t; what facts are in the public domain

By various accounts, those sessions have gotten positive reviews among attendees.

Politico has launched a mentoring program, too, pairing experienced reporters with up-and-comers. The mission of the program appears to be twofold: Extend the nurturing on reportorial methods beyond the confines of conference-room skull sessions and test the ability of staffers to keep a secret.

When asked about the mentoring program, among other items, Executive Editor Jim VandeHei refused to comment. Another editor confirmed the existence of the program but clammed up when asked who was working with whom. Several reporters contacted about the matter gave no details, and ace reporter-cum-famed BlackBerryist Mike Allen didn’t even respond to a question about his protégé(s).

Politico’s move into on-the-job training signals an acknowledgment that it relies heavily on young professionals to keep its content engine stoked. It has plenty of company on this front. Twentysomething journos are often insanely productive, handy with technology and best handled with care.

Perhaps the installation of a mentoring program a year or two ago would have headed off the Marr crisis. Or perhaps not: Two months after the posting of the Politico editor’s note, we know very little about what prompted the situation. For weeks and weeks, this blog sought comment from Marr without any success. She declined to address it.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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